The beams of light quit coming, but it didn’t matter. He was wrapped neck to toe, unable to move a single muscle. The trailing ends of the ropes stretched out from his body in every direction, as if he were stuck in the middle of a giant spider web. All was silent and still, the light blinding.
The cords around him suddenly grew taut, then began to pull at his limbs and torso. Trying to rip his body into pieces.
Fighting the Void
At first Tick didn’t feel the pain.
The power of Chi’karda within him burned so hot, so fierce, that he was unaware of all else except for a distant tugging sensation. Like he’d been thrown into a crowd and they were using his arms and legs as a wishbone. But the pain intensified, began to hurt. Bad. The pulling on his heart came back, too, as if two separate forces wanted to completely obliterate his body.
He screamed and released the power that had been building within, unleashing the Chi’karda with a mental burst of a detonation.
The bright whiteness of the ropes that had captured him was dimmed by the brilliance of orange light as Chi’karda erupted out of him. Streams of it shot from his body in arrows, and a cloud swelled from his skin, bulging underneath the cords like a burrowing animal.
The ropes held, pulling at him and continuing to jerk at his limbs and squeeze his middle. Pain stabbed at his joints and muscles. The pleasurable burn of power had been replaced by a different kind of fire, an agony that hurt worse than anything he’d ever experienced.
He screamed again and sent waves of Chi’karda crashing out of him, focusing on the strings of frozen lightning as if the whole thing were a video game, his mind the joystick. Orange flames struck at them, disintegrating half of them in one swoop of power. Tick’s body snapped to the left, flying through the air as the severed ropes found life again, coming back at him and trying to reattach their ends to his arms and legs. He held his breath and continued the onslaught of Chi’karda, firing away at everything in sight.
Sprays of pure whiteness erupted in tiny explosions like bursts of electricity out of a live wire as his power severed more of the cords. More and more and more of them. His mind worked relentlessly as he tried to destroy the things attached to him while at the same time keeping the others at bay. He floated in that strange outer space, throwing flares of energy at anything that moved. The mix of white and orange was brilliant and blinding, almost making him lose his focus.
His body ripped free from the bindings.
Tick quit aiming then and simply threw all his power out in wave after wave, destroying whatever dared come at him. Explosions of light and sound. The black air trembled; his skull rattled; his skin seemed to vibrate on his bones like they might slip free of his body. He was completely blind; the whole world had gone white and hot. There was wind and thunder and the smell of ozone and burning charcoal. It all added together into a chaotic jumble of anarchy, driving Tick insane as he continued to thrust outward with the power of Chi’karda as fast as he could gather it. He didn’t know what else to do, and he was scared to stop.
Something tugged at his heart again. He felt it despite the madness all around him—that sensation of strings being pulled, of being yanked from the inside.
His body suddenly jerked away from the explosions of energy and flying white cords of lightning. He flew through the blackness of that place that had seemed like outer space, the raging battle he’d been fighting gone in a flash. Things changed around him. Instead of darkness, there was a blue haze, splotches of green and brown and red flying past him. Chunks of gray rock appeared, coming at him like a rain of meteors.
Tick used his mind to control his flight, dodging and flipping and accelerating to avoid the rocks. As he approached the biggest one, a jagged stone the size of a bus, he had to slam on his mental brakes, coming to a stop right before he smashed into the thing. This caused the tugging inside him to intensify, sending shocks of pain throughout his nerves.
He reached out and felt the hard surface of the rock. He crawled along it to the other side, then jumped off it by pushing with his legs. His body once again catapulted through the strange-colored air, and the hurtful tug on his heart lessened enough that he could bear it.
Things changed once again.
He dove into a thick liquid, almost like a gel. Cold wetness soaked his hair and clothes and skin as his perception changed. He could sense up and down, everything shifting around him until it felt as if he were near the bottom of a deep ocean, swimming upward even though his arms and legs did nothing to make it so. He tore through the dark waters.
There was just enough light raining down in wavering rays that he could see creatures coming toward him. Long, powerful leviathans that swam with their back fins beating against the current like the tail of a dolphin. But these monsters had arms and burning red eyes, and Tick knew they wanted to grab him and stop him from reaching whatever was tugging him forward.
The monsters reached out, swimming in all at once. Clawed hands reached viciously for his body, snatching and scratching as their fingers tried to gain purchase. Tick lashed at them, swinging sluggishly through the thick liquid as he continued his ascent. The creatures kept pace with him, trying their best to grab hold of his limbs or clothes. Kicking and squirming, he spun his body to make it harder to catch, and when one of the creatures latched on, he fought it off. He couldn’t see much of their faces—they were all shadows and angles—but their red eyes burned like rocks of lava.
Two of them grabbed his legs, wrapping their arms tightly around one each. They squeezed, and their claws dug into his skin. The unseen forces still pulled him toward some unknown destination through a place he didn’t even understand.
He burst through the surface, the two creatures still holding onto his legs as he rocketed toward a bright blue sky. The jellied water cascaded off them in blubbery droplets, and Tick looked down to see the faces of the monsters clearly for the first time. They weren’t human at all: their bodies looked like sharks with arms, and their heads were smooth and glistening. Their eyes seemed to glow even brighter.
They flew toward the sapphire sky far above, but the weight of the two creatures and the pain of their claws and desperate clutches were making the journey unbearable. Tick punched down, smashing his fists into those odd faces. There was a piercing, awful screaming sound, but they held on. Tick punched again and again, those horrific cries ripping through the air, louder each time. He slammed down his fists once more, and they finally let go, dropping to the swiftly receding waters below them. He watched as they fell, listening as their screams slowly faded.
Tick continued launching toward the sky.
He looked up, a prickling sensation covering every inch of his body now, not just his insides. Forces pulled at him, like a magnet pulling a chunk of metal or Earth’s gravity pulling a skydiver. Except he was flying up, heading toward a dome of brilliant, blinding blue.
Tick hurt. He’d been hurting for what seemed like days. But the closer he got to the blue wall of the sky, the more pain ripped through his body. He screamed like he’d never screamed before, the wind ripping at his face.
And then he hit the sea of blue, and it all went away.
Hugs and Kisses
Tick’s eyes were closed.
He opened them up and blinked a few times. He lay on a hard surface, and above him he could see the grooves and lines of a ceiling carved from black rock. Faces peered down at him, women in robes with the hoods pulled up over their heads. The women were old, and several of them made a circle around his spot as they looked at him with both wonder and fear.
“Hey,” Tick said. His body ached from what he’d just been through—the flying and Chi’karda-laced battles, the plunge through liquid, the sharklike creatures, the lightning ropes, all of it—but not nearly as bad as it should have hurt. He felt almost at peace, though more confused than he’d been in a long time.
And then there were the sounds of commotion, people being pushed out of the way, calls of his name from two female voices that he recognized. More than recognized. Voices he knew as well as the sound of his own.
Lisa’s face appeared above him first, then his mom’s. Tears streamed down their faces as they came at him, pulling his body into hugs. Stunned, he hugged back, both of them in his arms, their arms wrapped around his shoulders and neck, his mom kissing him over and over on both cheeks. Somehow he managed to sit up, and they huddled for a long, long moment before anybody even spoke. Tick was overwhelmed, a part of him thinking it was all an illusion, terrified it might be and that he’d wake up any second. But sobs shook him as he fiercely hugged his mom and sister, a reunion that he’d begun to think might never happen.
Finally, his mom pulled back, as did Lisa. They both wiped tears from their eyes and cheeks.
“What . . .” Tick began, but his words were choked up in more sobs. Embarrassed, he wiped his own tears from his face.
“Happened?” his mom finished for him. “You’re wondering what happened?”
“Uh, yeah,” Lisa replied. “I think we’d all kinda like to know that.”
Tick had begun to compose himself, and he suddenly felt like he needed to stand, get some fresh air, breathe. He got to his feet and looked around. The old women in their robes and hoods had backed away, gathering into groups of two or three and staring at him with questioning faces. They all stood in a small chamber carved from black rock, a place Tick had never seen before. He noticed a Barrier Wand lying on the floor by one of the slightly curved walls.
Looking at his mom, he said, “I think I could write down a million guesses of how I got here and be wrong every time. Where are we?”
She smiled in response. “There’s a lot to tell. But that’s an easy question to answer. We’re in the Thirteenth Reality, in Mistress Jane’s castle, in a room she calls the Great Hall.”
Tick almost fell down. “The Thirteenth? Mistress Jane’s castle?”
“Or what’s left of it,” Lisa said.
One of the strangers walked over to stand next to Tick and his little group. She had a long face and seemed to have an air of authority about her. “I’m happy to see that you’ve been pulled back from the Nonex, Atticus Higginbottom. I assure you that we tried as hard as we could to do so ourselves. You have my apologies. I’m sure our master will want to meet with you as soon as she’s recovered.”
Tick listened to the words coming out of the woman’s mouth, getting more confused with each one. Finally, he just said, “Huh?”
She eyed Tick’s mom, an eyebrow raised. “We will take our leave. You can do all the explaining you’d like to the young man. I haven’t the time. But I’m sorry to say we’ll be taking your Barrier Wand until further notice. Mistress Jane would not be happy if we allowed you to leave before she’s spoken with you.”
“Now just wait one minute, Mordell,” Tick’s mom replied. He was still wondering what the lady had meant by “your Barrier Wand.” And why they were in Jane’s castle. And how he’d gotten there. And lots of other stuff. “You have no right to do that after we helped you!”